Bob Johnson entered the catering industry more than 25 years ago and now owns several banquet facilities and a catering company. Photo by Michael Buck
Last week Bob Johnson celebrated three years as owner of The Apartment Lounge, one of only two LGBT bars remaining in downtown Grand Rapids.
The bar has a long history in the community and is said to be the oldest continually operating LGBT-owned establishment in Michigan.
Ed Ladner and Milton Lenox opened The Apartment Lounge more than four decades ago. The bar moved locations a couple of times before settling in its current spot at 33 Sheldon Ave. NE, where it is neighbors with Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.
The Apartment Lounge’s tagline is “where friends meet,” and it has built a reputation of welcoming everyone.
Founded long before LGBT rights received widespread support, the bar holds a special place in many people’s hearts because it is one of the few places where they can be themselves without fear.
For that reason, Johnson said taking over ownership came with tremendous pressure but also a great sense of pride.
“The thing I’m most proud of is acquiring The Apartment Lounge and carrying on the tradition,” he said.
Johnson first set foot in the bar on his 21st birthday. He said Lenox carded him and, upon finding out he was celebrating his birthday, bought him his first legal drink. He also played a prank on the nervous Johnson, sending him upstairs to a dance floor that didn’t exist.
Despite the embarrassment, Johnson’s friendship with Lenox and Ladner was solidified over the next five years, and within that timeframe, the trio first broached the subject of Johnson taking over ownership of the bar someday.
“Here we are, 35 years later,” he said.
Johnson said when he opened the bar’s doors for the first time as owner, carrying on its welcoming tradition was paramount.
“Milt and Ed made it a welcoming place where they didn’t judge anybody, and that was important for me,” he said.
Johnson has made some upgrades to the bar, helping to modernize it.
“I’ve brought it into the future but not taken away from its integrity or its beauty,” he said. “It was important to me to make the transition while still respecting it.”
Johnson also has continued the bar’s philanthropic reputation, contributing $100,000 to charitable organizations in the past three years.
“The Apartment has always raised money for the community and helps set the pace for Grand Rapids,” Johnson said.
“Without Milt and Ed, we wouldn’t have The Red Project or The Network,” he said.
The nonprofit Grand Rapids Red Project is dedicated to improving health, reducing risk and preventing HIV; The Network provides resources and supportive services to the LGBT community.
“They gave the seed money to start those organizations,” Johnson said. “When the AIDS epidemic surfaced in California, they brought information and knowledge here — it was a pioneering move. It was important to carry that forward.”
Johnson also faced one of his greatest hardships as the bar’s owner: saying goodbye to Lenox, who died in 2015, telling Johnson he knew The Apartment was in good hands.
“Milt and Ed are two of the most important mentors that I’ve had in my life. I learned everything from them,” Johnson said.
At a time when LGBT spaces seem to be closing across the country — including two in Grand Rapids that have closed in the past two years — some people are questioning their necessity in the community. But Johnson said he isn’t worried for his bar’s future.
“It’s important that we don’t lose sight of our roots,” he said. “When people talk about the death of LGBT establishments — that can never happen because it’s part of who we are and who the next generation is going to be, and without a gathering place to actually meet people face-to-face, you lose that. I think there is going to be a resurgence (of LGBT establishments).”
Johnson also owns West Michigan Caterer and several banquet and conference centers in West Michigan. He entered the catering industry more than 25 years ago, after a brief stint in restaurant management. He said the catering industry has changed.
“Today, there is a lot more competition, but it’s more people that don’t stick around,” he said. “They come in and undercut everyone.
“You really need to look at the product you are getting in the end. We only use fresh meats and veggies, nothing frozen or out of a can. Fresh ingredients are the key to everything we do.”
He said it helps that the area is gaining a reputation for its beer and food.
“We are Beer City USA and we have amazing food here,” he said.
Johnson said he’s worked hard to turn his banquet facilities into destinations, and thanks to that effort, he’s seen an influx of people from outside West Michigan, particularly from Chicago.
“It was a matter of branding ourselves and putting ourselves into other markets,” he said. “The thing people from Chicago love is, they get here and when they look at pricing, they can have an amazing experience in West Michigan that they couldn’t even touch in Chicago.”
He said the customer service provided by his staff also is essential.
“That is the difference between us versus other people: We carry you through the whole process, from picking the menu to the tasting to planning and coordinating — making it a day you remember forever,” he said.
“Part of building my business was realizing you have to take care of people in every aspect, even if it’s not doing anything for you other than making your client’s life easier and making it a rounded, easy experience.”
He said that includes directing clients to a florist, lodging options and other services they need.
“We work well with other organizations to make sure we are full service,” he said.
Johnson has been building up his business acumen for nearly his whole life, having purchased his first business, Mr. Smoothie’s, at 15. It was a seasonal ice cream and hot dog shop originally owned by a neighborhood couple.
Johnson said the couple was going through a divorce, and since he had been working for them since he was 12, they asked him if he’d be interested in purchasing it.
“My grandparents lent me the money to buy it,” Johnson said.
He said he’s always had a natural inclination toward business ownership. He was the kid in the neighborhood who shoveled everyone’s sidewalks and mowed their lawns, eventually recruiting other kids to work alongside him so he could take on more jobs.
“I bought snow blowers so everyone could do more work. I had kids working for me at 10 years old,” he said. “We were all doing snow shoveling and snow blowing and lawns. That is how I got my start, really.”
Johnson attributes his success to his affable personality, which has helped him build strong, lasting relationships — and to his appreciation for his staff. He said his businesses see little turnover in personnel.
“We treat people well and reward them for being an asset,” he said. “You don’t work for us; you work with us. I’ve worked for companies where I was just a number and I refuse to treat anybody that way.”
To show his appreciation, he takes his management team to Napa Valley every couple of years, and he regularly hands out concert tickets to employees as a thank you.
“I’m a big fan of taking people to concerts or on a weekend trip,” he said. “It allows you to spend time together.”